#3. Dipping Ancient Artifacts in Plastic to Look Like Cheap Souvenirs
At first glance, Jonathan Tokeley-Parry would seem like the last person one would ever suspect of masterminding one of the largest smuggling operations in human history. With a degree in philosophy and a background in art restoration, he seemed more likely to be stoned in a coffee shop than engaged in international crime. Perhaps that is why he was able to smuggle nearly 3,000 priceless ancient artifacts out of Egypt before he was caught.
"Got your nose ... available at auction."
Tokeley-Parry moved to Egypt after dropping out of a graduate program to put his art restoration skills to more immediately profitable use as part of an elaborate antiquities-smuggling operation. Stolen Egyptian artifacts would make their way to him through one channel or another, and Tokeley-Parry would dip the ancient artifacts in liquid plastic and paint them in garish, tacky colors before applying a conspicuous "Made in Egypt" sticker.
Some girls just don't know how to wear makeup.
Boom -- instant bullshit souvenir, obviously cheap and horrible and not worth a second glance.
To move the items out of the country, Tokeley-Parry would simply buy a plane ticket and fly them out as luggage. Customs agents would often be holding the insanely valuable contraband items for him, waiting for him to come pick them up. Unlike the dumbass in the last entry, this smuggler didn't have to worry about machines at the airport calling him out. It's not like they're carbon-dating everything that passes through.
"I don't see how this can fail."
At this point, his associates in the U.K. would then remove the plastic shells and sell the artifacts at auction as part of the fictitious Thomas Alcock Collection, netting millions of dollars from various wealthy collectors who had no idea the items were stolen. Tokeley-Parry smuggled thousands of artifacts in this manner, including stone busts, tomb fragments, statues, even a goddamned sarcophagus, because apparently zanily painted yet suspiciously heavy plastic novelty coffins are common enough to make it through customs without arousing much attention.
Facing a 15-year prison term, Tokeley-Parry returned to his native England to face a much more civilized three-year sentence for smuggling, presumably disguising himself as a snow globe to make it through the Egyptian airport undetected.
#2. Blue Vodka
In what should come as a surprise to no one ever, the government in Russia places a high tax on imported alcohol, possibly because this is literally one of the only ways for Russia to make money. Naturally, it took the Russian mafia about five seconds to realize that there was a profit to be made here, so they reached out to several distilleries in America to embark on a mutually lucrative alcohol-smuggling operation.
"I don't know, guys ... are we sure this whole Russians and vodka thing isn't just a fad?"
Instead of the typical method by which alcohol is smuggled across the Atlantic (in the stomachs of business class passengers and screamed out into airport toilets), the Russian mafia bought millions of gallons of grain alcohol in the United States (including 5 million gallons just from McCormick Distilleries, the makers of 360 Vodka and Tequila Rose) and dyed it all blue.
You can already guess why -- turn alcohol blue and suddenly you've got windshield wiper fluid, or mouthwash. The plan was so simple that it had to work -- the alcohol easily made it through customs without provoking any interest, which admittedly is strange, considering you can't even get a tube of toothpaste, labeled as toothpaste, onto an airplane. Millions of gallons of mysterious blue fluid, however, is totally fine.
"Rule of thumb is: If it's blue, right on through. If it's red, cavity searches until they bleed."
Once the blue grain alcohol was in Russia, the dye was removed from it and vodka "flavoring" was added, although this step was likely unnecessary, because we doubt anyone has ever consumed vodka for the taste, and hard drinkers typically don't give one gurgling buttershit what color their liquor is.
This particular alcohol-trafficking scheme went on for about two-and-a-half years to the tune of $40 million before it was finally discovered, forcing the Russian mob to change to an as-yet-unknown method. Likely they are now piggybacking the contraband spirits onto items that cross in and out of Russia with regular disinterest (for example, hiding cases of Aristocrat in the nose cones of nuclear missiles).
#1. Zip-Lining iPads into China
Hong Kong is in a situation ripe for smuggling: It's just across a river from mainland China, yet has a considerably lower tax rate (a holdover from when the British owned it), and it's one of the cheapest places in the world to buy Apple products. The Chinese also have to pay a separate 20 percent tax on all imported electronics, such as computers. So any time goods are cheap on one side of the border and can be sold for much more on the other side, well, you don't have to ask smugglers twice.
But how to get them across ... well, we already featured somebody just chucking contraband over a fence with a catapult. What can top that?
Aside from this.
A dedicated group of smugglers with an equal obligation to streamlined effectiveness and vaudevillian hilarity rigged up a series of zip lines and pulleys to carry iPads and iPhones into mainland China. The operation consisted of one person on the 21st floor of a skyscraper firing a crossbow bolt trailing a tenth of a mile of fishing line across the Sha Tau Kok River to a house in China's Shenzhen province. Once the line was attached, a nylon bag filled with goods was hoisted over the border like Sylvester Stallone in Cliffhanger. This is an actual thing that actually happened.
It was just stupid enough to ... actually, it was just stupid.
In China, the death penalty is occasionally handed out to traffickers, so the zip line smugglers were potentially risking their very lives for their criminal enterprise. However, when they were eventually caught by a keen-eyed sleuth noticing 300 yards of fishing line angling down across the river from a 200-foot building, the police confiscated just 50 iPads and 50 iPhones, all told worth about $50,000. This suggests that the smugglers, rather than trying to make a quick fortune and retire to a private island, were really just trying to see if their idea would work. Or maybe they were doing it on a bet.
Benjamin enjoys surviving the urban jungle here.
For more ballsy criminals, check out 7 Real World Heists That Put 'Ocean's 11' to Shame and 5 Real Bank Heists Ripped Right Out of the Movies.